Las Vegas: Series round three preview

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News & Notes -- Las Vegas For RCR, It's Early -- But Encouraging, Nonetheless Two races don't forecast a season, but one fact is clear as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Las Vegas Motor Speedway -- Richard ...

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News & Notes -- Las Vegas

For RCR, It's Early -- But Encouraging, Nonetheless

Two races don't forecast a season, but one fact is clear as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Las Vegas Motor Speedway -- Richard Childress Racing is back.

Not just physically. Back statistically and competitively, with the apparent horsepower and performance to challenge for a series title.

Heading into Sunday's Shelby American at Las Vegas, all three RCR drivers are bunched near the top of the standings. Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Pennzoil Ultra Chevrolet) leads the list -- and the standings -- for the first time since his 2007 Daytona 500 victory. Clint Bowyer (No. 33 Cheerios/Hamburger Helper Chevrolet) is second, followed by teammate Jeff Burton (No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet) in fifth place.

"We worked hard to get to this point," Harvick said. "But you can't stop. With the three of us running good, it pushes us to fine-tune our stuff and really get the best out of our cars week in and week out."

Harvick holds his spot on the strength of consecutive, season-opening top-10 finishes in the 2010 Daytona 500 two weeks ago, then again this past Sunday at Auto Club Speedway. Bowyer and Burton have been as consistent, with Bowyer finishing fourth in the Daytona 500 and eighth at Auto Club, and Burton logging an 11th at Daytona and third at Auto Club.

"Jeff, Kevin and I had cars capable of winning at both Daytona and Fontana," Bowyer said. "Our engines are performing better and our cars' handling definitely improved. I'm proud of what we've been able to do right out of the gate and we're confident those solid runs will continue."

A forgettable 2009 set the stage for improvement. All three RCR teams failed to earn Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup berths with Bowyer finishing 15th in the final standings, Burton 17th and Harvick 19th. Intensive research and development and crew-chief switches ensued, with the change hinting at rejuvenation near the end of 2009. Harvick logged top fives in two of the season's final three races while Burton finished with consecutive runner-up efforts in the final two events.

"We really went into this season with high hopes and I personally felt this was the most prepared we've been to enter a season since I've been [NASCAR] Sprint Cup racing," Bowyer said.

RCR knows how to rebound. Uncharacteristic finishes of 14th in the 2004 and '05 final standings for Harvick, and 18th in '04 and '05 for Burton, helped launch an organizational turnaround that propelled both drivers back into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup from 2006-08. Bowyer, who arrived as a rookie in 2006, also earned Chase berths in '07 and '08.

The 2009 fall-off created a mandate for change, necessary in a sport where innovation is critical.

"The tire test that we did this winter, combined with the way we ended last year, gives all the RCR teams a lot of confidence," Burton said. "It's real nerve-wracking when you don't get off to a good start and the first three or four races don't go well. You're trying to play catch up and trying to make up what you lost."

Now, all RCR lacks is a victory. Harvick has a 109-race winless streak, Burton's stands at 43 races and Bowyer's winless streak is 64.

"It's still really early in the season but you have to feel optimistic when you see us running the way we have so far," Richard Childress said. "We ended the 2009 season running good and we worked hard during the off-season to make sure we could carry it over into this season. We have a lot of challenges ahead of us, with the new spoiler and some other things, but we have to take them one at a time and do the best we can.

"I really feel good about the personnel changes we made last year: the crew chiefs; Scott Miller in his new position as director of competition; and Mike Dillon's revised responsibilities as vice president of com- petition. I feel really good about the direction we're headed but this sport can humble you real quick so you can't get too high on your horse or, before you know it, you've fallen off."

Johnson, As Expected, Rebounds From Daytona Disappointment

Winning is what champions do, as evidenced by Jimmie Johnson's victory last Sunday at Auto Club Speedway. Tenacity, a dose of luck and a good No. 48 Lowe's/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet all combined for a late run at the win. Now, the reigning and four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion heads to Las Vegas, where his line reads very well -- three wins, three top fives, four top 10s in eight career starts. And if Johnson somehow aces Las Vegas, watch out next week at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He has three career wins there, as well. "We obviously learn every time we go to the race track and try to make our packages better," Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus said. "We've got a new car going to Las Vegas that's got some new things we're excited about. Every race is a learning opportunity. If we go away from any race and we don't learn something, it's our own fault."

Busch Brothers Geared Up For Series' Annual Vegas Visit

For the first time in his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career, Kyle Busch (No. 18 M&M's Toyota) heads to his hometown track as the defending race champion.

Busch, a 24-year-old Las Vegas native, won last year's Shelby American from the pole at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Older brother Kurt Busch (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge) made it a family affair by starting on the outside pole. And though Kurt didn't have quite the day that Kyle did last February, he's one of the candidates who could unseat his brother as Sunday's winner

First, the reminiscence:

"It was awesome, just the feeling of a lifetime," Kyle Busch said of his 2009 win. "I told everyone that it would be just like another race, but it really meant a lot more than that when I got to Victory Lane. To have my mom there and my brother come to Victory Lane just made it that much more special.

"We didn't have the best car last year, but I feel like I drove a smart race, anyway, and did what we needed to do. We worked on it all day and kept making it better."

That's what Kurt Busch did with his season, winning the following week at Atlanta Motor Speedway and eventually finishing fourth in the 2009 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

Meanwhile, Kyle Busch looks to rebound in 2010 after missing the 2009 Chase. He finished 13th in last year's final standings, acquired a new crew chief in Dave Rogers and collected the 2009 NASCAR Nationwide Series title -- all life experiences he hopes will bolster his 2010 game plan. Thus far he's finished 14th in both the season-opening Daytona 500 and last Sunday at Auto Club Speedway, heading home again 13th in the standings.

"The final three races last year, he brought a lot to the table and we learned a lot," Busch said of Rogers' new assignment. "We got going a little bit better, I felt like. Hopefully our competition is ready for us this year."

Kurt Busch also has a new crew chief as he returns to Las Vegas -- Steve Addington, who was Kyle's crew chief in 2008 and most of '09. Although it's early, the Kurt Busch-Addington combination seems smooth. Kurt finished 23rd in the season-opening Daytona 500 and sixth last Sunday at Auto Club Speedway. He heads home 11th in the series standings.

"I've always dreamed about winning the race there at our home track and we had a strong car there last year until we had the engine problem," Kurt said. "But as everyone knows, you have to be there at the end. Kyle drove a great race and saved the best for last. I wanted to let him know how proud of him that I was, so that's why I hustled on down there like I did."

Adds Addington:

"That's our big goal this weekend -- to get Kurt and the Miller Lite Dodge into Victory Lane. I know just how much last year's win meant to Kyle and it was a thrill to be part of such a huge hometown win like that. We're on a mission to get Kurt a big winner's trophy of his own in Vegas this weekend.

"One of the biggest things I remember about winning last year's Vegas race was seeing Kurt come into Victory Lane, congratulate his little brother and give him a big hug. Their mom (Gaye) was our team scorer for the 18 car and she was right there soaking the scene all in with her two sons. It was a memorable occasion, that's for sure."

Emotions aside, the Busch siblings have mixed results at Las Vegas.

Kurt has one top five, two top 10s and two DNFs (did not finish) in nine career starts there. Kyle has two poles, one win, three top fives, four top 10s and one DNF. Kyle also holds the distinction of being the track's youngest pole winner (22 years and 10 months) when he won his first series pole there in March 2008. A year later, he became the track's youngest race winner (23 years, nine months and 27 days). Last year's pole also set the track's series qualifying record (185.995 mph).

Jeff Gordon Looks Like A Good Bet, At Las Vegas

Jeff Gordon has reeled off two consecutive bad finishes to start the 2010 season in 22nd place, a strange occurrence for the four-time series champion.

But there are three reasons for optimism.

One, a bad start has never turned into a bad finish. Gordon's worse points position after two races was 43rd in 1996. He finished the year as the championship runner-up. In 2000, he was also 22nd in the points after two events. He ended the year ninth in the points.

Two, Gordon's finishes are not exactly in- dicative of the his in-race performance.

At Daytona, where he finished 26th, Gordon had a solid Driver Rating of 88.2, an Average Running Position of 13.8, two Laps Led and four Fastest Laps Run.

At Auto Club Speedway, Gordon finished 20th. His Average Running Position that race, though, was 11.3. Additionally, he had a Driver Rating of 86.9, a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 73.6% and he had 20 Fastest Laps Run.

So what gives?

The answer might lie in the Loop Data box score, under the column "Closer Place." With 20 laps to go in the Daytona 500, Gordon was running 6th. He lost 20 positions -- or, one a lap -- in the final 10% of that race. His Closer number improved dramatically at Auto Club Speedway, as he gained eight positions over the final 25 laps. But he did drop off overall in the second half of the race. At the race's midpoint, Gordon ran in ninth-place. He finished 20th.

Combined, Gordon has lost 12 positions in the final 10% of races, which ranks fourth-worst.

Three, Gordon is strong at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

He has a win there (2001), five top fives and six top 10s. Gordon also has a series-best Average Running Position of 7.4, a Driver Rating of 111.5 (second-best), 103 Fastest Laps Run (second) and a series-high 1,260 Laps in the Top 15 (92.9%) since the inception of Loop Data in 2005.

Gordon has finished in the top 10 in four of his last five races, and has scored a Driver Rating over 100.0 in each of the last five Las Vegas events.

FANTASY FIX: Pre-race Las Vegas Driver Rating has been spot-on when handicapping the event. Three of the last four race-winners had a pre-race Driver Rating in the top three. There has been only one statistical "upset" since the inception of Loop Data in 2005: Carl Edwards in 2008. Edwards came into that race ranked 16th in pre-race Driver Rating with a 78.3.

Seeking Return to Victory Lane, Roush Drivers May Be Coming To The

Watch out for Roush Fenway Racing at Las Vegas. Not only does team owner Jack Roush lead all others with six NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victories there, he and his teams are chasing an important milestone.

The next win by a Roush Fenway driver will be the organization's 400th overall. Two opportunities exist this weekend with Sunday's Shelby American and Saturday's NASCAR Nationwide Series event, the Sam's Town 300. Winning is very much on Roush Fenway minds. The last time a Roush Fenway driver visited Victory Lane was last October, when Jamie McMurray (No. 1 Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet) -- the reigning Daytona 500 champion now at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing -- won at Talladega Superspeedway.

Before that, Roush Fenway's only other 2009 wins were Matt Kenseth's (No. 17 Crown Royal Ford) back-to-back, season-opening victories in the 2009 Daytona 500 and at Auto Club Speedway.

Former Roush Fenway drivers Mark Martin (No. 5 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet) and Jeff Burton won the first three NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events at Las Vegas, Martin in 1998 and Burton in 1999 and 2000. Kenseth followed with back-to-back victories in 2003 and '04. Carl Edwards (No. 99 Aflac Ford) is the latest Roush Fenway driver to win at Las Vegas, in 2008.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Etc.

It's early in the season, but already surprises lurk at either end of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings.

Scott Speed (No. 82 Red Bull Toyota) and Paul Menard (No. 98 Moen/Menards Ford) are two drivers buoyed by quality starts to 2010. Speed is 15th heading into Sunday's Shelby American at Las Vegas Motor Speedway while Menard is 18th.

Solid runs in the season's first two events have boosted both teams. Speed finished 11th last Sunday at Auto Club Speedway and led once for three laps. Menard finished 18th. Two weeks ago in the season-opening Daytona 500, Menard finished 13th while Speed finished 19th.

Still soon for statement-making, but continued good runs bode well. Menard, in his first season with Richard Petty Motorsports and fourth in NASCAR Sprint Cup, also is off to a strong start in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, where he ranks 10th, also competing on a fulltime basis.

Speed, in his second season with Team Red Bull, currently must earn a starting spot via qualifying speed. His team finished 36th in the 2009 owner standings, one position shy of the cut-off guaranteeing starting spots through the first five races of 2010.

The top-35 guarantee reverts to current owner standings beginning with the season's sixth event at Martinsville Speedway. But if he continues to show improvement, Speed may not have to worry about qualifying.

"We made a lot of progress in the offseason," he said. "(Crew chief) Jimmy (Elledge) and the guys have worked so hard. What's cool for me is how much I've learned. When I'm out there I'm doing stuff and I'm like, 'Man, I felt so dumb and that makes the whole process easier."

Some significant names linger further down in the standings.

Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) is 22nd after two races (he was second heading to Las Vegas in 2009). Juan Pablo Montoya (No. 42 Target Chevrolet) is 23rd, Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Budweiser Ford) is 33rd and Ryan Newman (No. 39 Tornados Chevrolet) is 36th. All four were 2009 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup participants; all have been stymied by on-track incidents (Kahne and Gordon at Daytona) and mechanical problems (Montoya losing an engine at Auto Club; Gordon slowed by spark-plug problems).

"We've had fast, competitive cars in the first two events," Gordon said. "We just don't have good finishes to show for it." ...

Several NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers will achieve career milestones at Las Vegas: Marcos Ambrose (No. 47 Kingsford-Scott Branded Products Toyota) with 50 starts, Jeff Burton with 550 starts, Kevin Harvick with 325 starts and Sam Hornish Jr. (No. 77 Mobil 1 Dodge) with 75 starts.

Bobby Labonte (No. 71 Taxslayer Chevrolet) seeks his 200th top-10 career finish while Mark Martin seeks his 50th career pole. ...

This week's race weekend gets off to a colorful start with Thursday's popular hauler parade down Las Vegas Boulevard, aka, "The Strip." Track officials expect 60-75 NASCAR Sprint Cup and NASCAR Nationwide Series haulers to participate. The big trucks will stage in the right lane of Las Vegas Blvd., just south of the Russell Road intersection at 6 p.m. They'll proceed north to Sahara Ave., before exiting onto I-15 for the trip to the track. Fans may watch the parade from either side of "The Strip."

Up Next: Race 4 @ Atlanta

Kurt Busch is the defending champion of next week's Kobalt Tools 500 (Sunday, March 7) at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Last year's Atlanta victory was the first of Busch's two wins in 2009. It's a 500-mile, 325-lap event.

Dale Earnhardt leads all drivers with nine career wins at Atlanta. Ryan Newman is tied with Buddy Baker for the most career poles (seven) there.

FOX has the broadcast, with a pre-race show beginning at noon ET, followed by the Kobalt Tools 500 at 1 p.m.

Fast Facts

The Race: Shelby American
The Place: Las Vegas Motor Speedway (1.5-mile oval)

The Date: Sunday, Feb. 28
The Time: 3 p.m. (ET) Race Distance: 400.5 miles/267 laps

TV: FOX , 2 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN and Sirius NASCAR Radio Channel 128

2009 Polesitter: Kyle Busch
2009 Winner: Kyle Busch

Pre-race day schedule (all times local):
Friday -- Practice, 12-1:30 p.m. Qualify- ing, 3:40 p.m.
Saturday -- Practice, 10:40- 11:20 a.m. and 11:45 a.m.-12:50 p.m.

-source: nascar

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Jeff Burton , Jeff Gordon , Matt Kenseth , Bobby Labonte , Kevin Harvick , Kurt Busch , Ryan Newman , Jimmie Johnson , Jamie McMurray , Richard Petty , Kasey Kahne , Marcos Ambrose , Scott Speed , Paul Menard , Carl Edwards , Clint Bowyer , Jack Roush , Chad Knaus , Buddy Baker , Sam Hornish Jr. , Kyle Busch , Mark Martin
Teams Chip Ganassi Racing , Richard Petty Motorsports , Roush Fenway Racing